National Yiddish Book Center

1021 West Street
Amherst, MA 01002-3375

United States

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The National Yiddish Book Center was founded in 1980 by MacArthur Fellow Aaron Lansky, who continues to lead the organization as its president. When he was a 23-year-old graduate student, Lansky stumbled upon an alarming fact: throughout North America, thousands of priceless Yiddish books – books that had survived Hitler and Stalin – were being discarded and destroyed. As an older generation passed on, more often than not their precious Jewish volumes were literally thrown in the trash by children and grandchildren unable to read the language. An entire literature was on the verge of extinction.
Lansky realized something had to be done – and done fast – before it was too late. So he took what he thought would be a two-year leave of absence from graduate school and, operating out of an unheated factory loft, issued a public appeal for unwanted and discarded Yiddish books. Jews from all over America rallied to the call.

Soon, Lansky and a handful of co-workers – all in their early 20s – were spending weeks and months on the road, hauling priceless Jewish books from cellars and attics, synagogues and abandoned buildings. Once they received a midnight phone call, took a 2 A.M. train to New York City and worked all day in the freezing rain to rescue 8,000 books from a garbage dumpster. Another time they organized a group of local teenagers into a "bucket brigade" to recover a 15,000-volume Jewish library from the basement of a demolished building in the Bronx.

When the Center began, scholars estimated there were 70,000 Yiddish books still extant and recoverable. The Center recovered that number in six months and has gone on to recover 1.5 million volumes, with hundreds of additional books continuing to arrive each week. The Center’s achievement has been hailed as the "the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history."

Old Books for New Readers
We are not a גניזה, genizah, a storehouse for dusty books no one will ever read again. To the contrary, our goal is to return old books to a new generation of readers. As the world’s only comprehensive supplier of Yiddish books, we’ve drawn on our extensive duplicate holdings to establish or strengthen Yiddish collections at more than 450 of the world’s great libraries, including Harvard, Yale, Library of Congress, the British Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and national libraries in countries as distant as Australia, China and Japan.
Because many of our books are physically deteriorating – and because we no longer have sufficient supplies to meet demand – in 1998 we launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library: a pioneering program to digitize the titles in our collection and make high-quality reprints available on demand. Our easy-to-use online catalog means that Yiddish, once the most endangered of literatures, is now the safest and most accessible.

Outreach Programs
Along with book collection, we’ve undertaken far-reaching initiatives to "open up" the books we’ve found – including modern Jewish titles in English, Hebrew, Russian, French, Spanish and other languages – and share with the world the extraordinary treasures they contain.
Response to these initiatives has been nothing short of astounding. Participants from around the world attend our annual Summer Program for Yiddish Culture. Some of the nation’s top college students participate in our annual Summer Internship Program. Our 13-hour radio series, "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond," proved one of the most popular programs in the history of National Public Radio. And פּאַקן טרעגער, Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine, was recently cited by a national newspaper columnist as "arguably the best Jewish magazine in America."

Now we’re working in new ways to reunite עם הספֿר, Am Ha-sefer, the People of the Book, with their literary heritage. The first goal is to translate or re-issue selected titles from the best of modern Jewish literature and, using the technology of our Spielberg Digital Library, to keep these books "in print" forever. We're also preparing to make all of these titles available online, so that anyone with an internet connection will have access to the literature in its entirety.

Programs now in the planning stage include workshops for Jewish writers, an expanded conference schedule, and museum education.
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